Monthly Archives: February 2014

#82: The Eight Year Old Gives His Father the American English Teacher a Writing Lesson

The boy's hamburger. Dad's notes.

The boy’s hamburger. Dad’s notes.

The eight year old says, what did you do at work today?
And his Dad tells him about the fishbowl
discussion around the novel he’s teaching.
And the boy says, during writing time at school we make hamburgers.
He explains: Writing is like a hamburger.
It has to start and end with the same thing, you know, a bun.
And in the middle you have to have three things.
That’s where the beef is, you know, and you might put
two other things on there–like ketchup and pickles.
Those are the details.
Just to make sure Dad understands, he draws a picture
of a hamburger, but in the drawing he trades out
the ketchup for lettuce and keeps the pickles
and then he makes his Dad take notes, because
this is important. Dad writes on the top bun, “beginning,”
and on the bottom bun he writes, “end.”
In the margin the boy tells him to write that
the end “has to be the same as the beginning.”
Then Dad indicates with a marginal bracket that
the lettuce, the pickles, and the beef are the “details.”
And then the eight year old improvises on the spot
an essay about snow days:

Snow days are fun.
I built a snow castle.
I built 11 snow men and named them all Timmy.
I played a snow ball fight.
Snow days are fun.*

A perfect hamburger.
But Dad the American English teacher
is worried on a couple of fronts
by the lesson his son delivers,
adorable as it might be.
This, he understands, is the second
grade equivalent of the five paragraph
essay, that antiquated monster of a formula
that generations of teachers believed
(and many still believe) would teach
young people something about good writing.
And I’ve heard the argument
that it gives students a tool with which
to organize their jumbled thoughts
into something approximating coherence,
and then when it is mastered it can be jettisoned.
The problem is that so often it’s never jettisoned
and students continue to write in a box
despite the fact that they’ve never in their lives
read anything remotely like it by a professional
writer. And Dad wants his son to understand this early
but is surprised it’s already a thing in the second grade.
So maybe the next time they read one of his books at night,
they’ll look for the hamburger, won’t find it, and will
have to make some adjustments in their understanding
about what writers must do
and create a new, more useful metaphor.

*either the snow day essay is what the boy said and Dad wrote something different in his notes, or the notes represent the boy’s words and Dad edited the snow day essay.  You decide.

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#81: The American English Teacher Addresses His Students About the Failed Lesson on Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”

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He announces a quiz over the Washington Irving story
his students were supposed to have read in class on the previous day.
The quiz is designed to efficiently assess what, if anything,
they understood from their reading, dumb kinds of literal
comprehension prompts, the type of which he rarely, if ever, gives:
Explain why Rip Van Winkle went into the mountains
and provide three specific details of what happened to him there.
In one class of 28, 4 students can do it.
In another class of 29, no students can do it.
In one more class of 24, 4 students can do it.
Because it wasn’t about humiliating specific kids,
the teacher corrects the quiz publicly without names,
simply by saying
NO and placing the incorrect answers in a pile
and less frequently (hardly ever) saying
YES and putting those answers in a pile,
noting that even the answers going down in the
YES pile are about half the time incomplete
and only partially correct. Yes, Rip Van Winkle
did wake up with a beard, but he did NOT grow
the beard in a single night. Yes, he did get
drunk on some ghostly liquor, but he was NOT
attacked by a band of rabid squirrels.
Even though they understand that almost
all of them have failed the quiz, they manage
to share some pretty good laughs about the squirrels.
And then the teacher tries to be as
serious as he can possibly be,
because the third item on the quiz is the most
important one:  Did you find this reading difficult,
and if so, what did you DO in the face of that difficulty?
Some frightening responses: I skimmed through.  I plowed forward,
even though I was conscious of understanding not a single thing.
I simply gave up.  I stopped reading altogether
and felt successful at not taking unfair advantage of my brain
and therefore avoiding any and all possible discomfort.
Better responses, and explanations of the 8 successful quizzes out of 81:
I reread over and over the difficult passages.
I looked up words or used the notations in the textbook.
I read out loud.  I found an audio recording on youtube and read along, or not.
One of the success stories found a 6 minute youtube lesson
on “Rip Van Winkle” and was amazed how quickly one could “understand”
a 7,000 word work of fiction.  And that provided the teacher a beautiful
opportunity to talk about the qualitative difference between
a six minute cartoon lecture and actually doing the work on one’s own.
But this kid, an outlier rock star who struggles with reading
but had a DESIRE to get it right, she does the youtube thing
and then GOES BACK TO THE TEXT!  The American English
teacher loves this kid and owes the inspiration for this first aid kit
lesson plan almost entirely to her.
It’s announced that these quizzes will not be recorded
and a sigh of relief moves around the room like a wave.
And finally the American English Teacher says to his charges,
you can do better. You must do better.
You cannot be okay with mediocrity and you cannot
pack it in when the going gets tough.
So much depends upon it, far, far, far beyond
understanding a Washington Irving tale.
This is your life we’re talking about, people.
Reading actively, consciously, with intention
and attention will spill over into every other
facet of your existence. Word.

Next up: “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant.

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#80: Shaping the Pixels (Another Minecraft Poem)

SamCube-Minecraft-Poster-24x36_876586

There seems to be an inexhaustible amount
of stuff that can be known about this game.
Dad writes a poem to articulate his emerging
understanding of his eight year old son’s
favorite past time, and realizes in short order
that he’s only scratched the surface, that he’s
only scratched the surface of the surface,
that he has discovered about Minecraft
the upper topmost tip of an iceberg
that’s not melting, or, the equivalent of his
meager lifespan compared
to all geological time.

And the boy wants to teach his father
everything.  What do you want to know
about minecraft? he says.  And Dad will ask questions.
What’s the most important thing to know?
Or, what do you like most about the game?
And he says, I like to mine and I like to craft.
And he’ll want to build things there, just for Dad.
Dad, make a list of things you want me to build!
And sometimes the conversations get weird.
There’s food in minecraft, he says, and without minecraft
foods you wouldn’t be able to survive in minecraft.
You have a hunger bar.  And if the hunger bar
goes all the way out, you start losing health
and you might die.  How do you find food? Dad asks.
You kill animals or find them in dungeons.
I found an apple pie once in a dungeon.
Can you choose to be a vegetarian?
There are no vegetables in minecraft, he says,
only carrots and potatoes.  Is a potato a vegetable?
No, a potato is a potato and an apple is a fruit.
How do you tell the difference between a fruit
and a vegetable?  By looking, of course.
Okay, but just by looking, how do you tell them apart,
how do you tell a fruit from a vegetable?
Because in real life, he says, I shape the pixels
into what it is, and that’s that.

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#79: A Minecraft Poem (Dad’s Understanding Emerges)

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As I understand it, Minecraft is a computer game
in which a first person player named Steve
wanders through a seemingly endless outdoor landscape
made entirely of blocks of things. The grass, the trees,
the water, the hills, the clouds in the sky–all blocks
(nothing in this world is curved, arched, or angular-slanty).
In his wandering,
Steve digs holes in the ground, holes that consist
entirely of right angles. In his digging,
he finds things and collects things and stores them
away for future use. This is the mining aspect,
I gather. Steve can then build things with the stuff
he has collected, whatever he wants, again, using
only square blocks of collected stuff: wood, iron, dirt, glass,
brick, grass, and a dozen or more other kinds
of material, the names of which escape me.
Steve can build a house, a restaurant,
a library, a fort, a shelter, a tower,

a tunnel, a roller coaster, he can plant
a garden, he can make any thing that might
amuse him.  This is the craft aspect, I assume.
So he wanders, mines, and crafts.  But Steve is not alone.

The world is inhabited, if Steve chooses it to be,
with blocky entities called Creepers and  Zombies,
cube-constructed animals like chickens, cows, and pigs,
all of which, I think, Steve can “spawn” for his
use and amusement, or even  kill, if he likes.
If he kills a chicken 
or a cow or a pig, the death
of that animal can become 
food for Steve.
It is necessary in this game, I think,

for Steve to consume food.  To kill a Creeper
or a Zombie, or an animal for that matter,
Steve must simply hit his target with something,
some kind of weapon he has mined and crafted,
and as he hits his target it jumps back a few times,
stunned but decidedly unharmed.  But if
Steve continues to hit at the Creeper or
the Zombie or the animal, it flashes red
as it jumps back, indicating, I think, its eminent
demise.  When it dies, it falls over on its side
and then simply disappears.  Not a gory
affair, by any measure, but violent, nonetheless.

But the killing of things, or the fighting of
bad guys, does not seem to be the game’s primary
purpose. The goal of Minecraft, at least from Dad’s
perspective, is allusive, ambiguous.  But he thinks
he may have stumbled on a working theory.
Dad has finally reached the conclusion
that the ultimate goal of Minecraft
is to continue to play Minecraft.

The graphics are surprisingly primitive,
the soundtrack minimal, often soothing,
but what gives the boy  the ultimate thrill
that keeps him going and going until Dad
and Mom pull the plug is this feeling perhaps
of unlimited possibility and unfettered control
to move and manipulate this endless space,
this landscape, this mutable and ever-changing
environment that becomes entirely his
and only his. And if he chooses, if he tires
of being Steve, he can reinvent himself
with a new skin and a new identity.
And, if he is feeling lonely, he can join
others via the mighty web in worlds
they have created and opened up
for visitors.  This is the aspect that makes
Dad nervous, but so far, as far as Dad can tell,
no harm, no foul.  What also worries Dad,
to a lesser degree, is that what seems to interest
his son is a game called Minecraft.  After that,
Minecraft comes in at a close second.
His third choice: Minecraft.  And finally,
in a tight race for fourth place but moving
steadily and stealthily into stiff competition,
are videos of other guys playing videos
of Minecraft.

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#78: The American English Teacher Wonders About the Effectiveness of Reading To His Students

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My students love it when I read out loud to them.
Well, that might be putting it on a bit thick.
Let’s say instead that they prefer that to reading independently.
I read out loud well and this guarantees at the end
at least some level of certainty that every kid in the room
has in some way engaged with the text, or, if they
did nothing but listen the whole time, they will have
understood a large part of the material we are
supposedly dealing with today. Only a few of them
will nod off to my mellifluous delivery.
But I worry that I’m not doing them any favors
when I read out loud; I worry that I am only making it
easier for them, that I’m doing most of the heavy lifting,
and perhaps it’s not helping them to improve
their own abilities to grapple with difficult material.
Deep down I know these worries are valid, and maybe true.
So I tell these kids, recently introduced to Romanticism
in American Literature—here’s a fun piece by Washington Irving
to read on your own and here are some big questions
to wrestle with along the way and we’ll write and
we’ll talk about it all when you get done reading.

They can’t do it. Or they won’t do it. In small groups,
reading out loud, or independently and in silence,
most of them throw in the towel after two or three
pages, they give up on the reading altogether as soon as they get
to an unknown word or a difficult sentence. They try then to guess
at answers to the questions. Their work deteriorates
into social stuff or they become buried in their smart phones.
Some resourceful ones have found audio versions
of “Rip Van Winkle” on youtube, and instead of listening
to me, they’re  listening to some other fool read out loud.
They don’t understand the sentences, let alone the jokes,
and I push and prod and encourage and cajole but
it all comes to naught, falls mostly on deaf ears,
and they blame the material for being stupid, uninteresting,
or (my favorite) boring.  It’s not the material, I say,
and out of decorum or professionalism, I don’t finish the sentence.

And this comes back again to the problem
of tracked classrooms, even student-selected ones.
In my regular English classes
there are very few students rising to the occasion and
those students do not want to stand out in a crowd
where ineptitude and apathy run amok,
where aversion to difficulty is the norm.
And I am stuck between a rock and another rock
trying to decide between Mr. Jarmer Story Time
or one failed lesson after another because students
cannot or will not read IN CLASS. Of course
there’s a happy medium, but today it was entirely
unhappy and most kids spent 87 minutes not reading
while I wrung my hands and gnashed my teeth.

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#77: What I’m Doing While My Students Are Taking Standardized Tests

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I’m writing poetry, of course.
Early in the semester, I’ve got no
grading to do and I’m unusually
planned for the upcoming unit.
My students are taking a standardized
writing test for which they choose
one dumb prompt from four dumb
prompts in each of the four and only
four dumb categories of writing that exist
in the world: expository, persuasive,
narrative non-fiction, and imaginative.
They cannot write poetry.
So I am writing it for them.
But these are poems about teaching.
And this poem here is a poem about writing
and the teaching of writing and the
testing of the teaching of writing.
An argument could be made that
of all types of standardized tests,
that this one, because kids actually
have an opportunity to show how
they think and how they write, at
least is authentic. But I’m not sure
that it is authentic—in fact, I’m rather
convinced that it is not.  Disconnected
from any course content, it’s an
assessment that reduces learning
and art down to a set of supposedly
quantitative and objective skills.
And it’s high stakes.  A kid’s
graduation almost entirely depends
upon it.  And these are my biggest
gripes about the test—its do or die
ethic, its uniformity, its rigidness,
its total disregard for divergent ways
of learning and knowing, its
displacement of curriculum, its
dissimilarity to any actual writing
that’s done by real writers.  The
only thing I like about the standardized
test is that it affords me time to think
and write poetry about how I don’t like
standardized tests.

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#76: The Obligatory Snow Poem

Snow

It’s been six years since we’ve seen snow
in our neck of the woods and I was beginning
to fear the end of snow forever and ever,
another casualty of the warming planet.
But lo and behold, it snows
and snows and snows and snows.
The cars are buried, the driveway become
invisible, the branches of trees heavy,
threatening us with their sway,
the flower pots overflowing, the boy
ecstatic, saying, yesterday, mouth full
of ice cold powder, “this is like the beach,
only a million times better.” And he tries
to make a snowman, which turns out
more like a big mound, and then pointy like some
kind of obscene ice phallus, the snow too dry
to roll into a ball. Everyone’s posting
the obligatory snow accumulation photos
and I write this obligatory snow poem.
I don’t want it to stop and simultaneously
want it to end, the inconvenience of it,
and the bone chill. But mostly I could go on
and on like this, snow days, providing
as they do lots and lots of time.
I can write a poem, make music if I like,
read a book, play with the family,
and at night, mostly, sit in front
of fires and drink in the kind of silence
that only comes with a big snow.

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